By the end of autumn 2015, the Lebanese political scene began showing significant progress in resolving the country's political crisis, the main issue of which was laminating the year and a half long presidential vacuum. And it seems that these shifts can lead to reshuffling of the familiar disposition on the political arena: at the end of November 2015 an event took place in Paris that stunned even those politicians most versed in Lebanese realities.
You don't have to immerse yourself in the finer points of relationships between the Lebanese political elite to realize that unilateral nomination of a presidential candidate made outside of Lebanon, backed by political support from abroad, and without informing key political partners, can appear alarming. The leader of the "March 14" alliance and the informal leader of the Al-Mustaqbal party 'Saad Hariri offered the presidency to Suleiman Franjieh, an MP from Zgharta and a leader of Lebanon's Marada party, who made the announcement of the fact on November 25, 2015. The situation is made more poignant by the fact that two out of four of the main presidential contenders are S. Hariri's fellow party members from "March 14", while Franjieh is a member of the opposing "March 8" block that, apart from Marada, consists of Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement (as well as Dashnaktsutyun, the Syrian National Social Party, and others.)
This has resulted in a very cautious reaction from senior Lebanese politicians of both alliances. For several days they kept a grim silence. The indignation of Lebanese politicians was not made public, and the press received mostly hints – appeals and statements on unacceptability of "any kind of political blackmail and dubious deals that undermine the very institution of presidency." Michel Aoun said that it will not force him to concede the fight for the top job in favor of S. Franjieh. Later, he said that it was the "March 8" alliance's job to "appoint" Franjieh, and that he didn't understand why it was done by Hariri. He also informed his Hezbollah colleagues that he does not accept the proposed candidate.
Samir Dzhaadzha has also confirmed his uncompromising stance, vowing to fight for the presidency until the end. On the other hand, Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party expressed its unequivocal support for Franjieh's nomination.
Speaking of the clergy, it only makes sense that the bishops of the Maronite Church were the first to voice their position. Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi urgently returned from a pastoral visit to Latin America and took part in a meeting of the Maronite Bishops Conference in Bkerke on December 3, 2015. Consequently, an official position of the Maronite spiritual leaders was declared. As expected, it was balanced and sufficiently noncommittal. It recognized S. Franjieh's candidacy as one of the four most worthy, but emphasized that the Maronite Church "does not have its candidates, neither does it have the right to impose its veto on any of them."
A few other assessments were less diplomatic. Thus, an unnamed source – a senior politician from the Christian "March 14" bloc – expressed grave concern on the manner of which S. Franjieh was "nominated": apparently, by the fact that his candidacy was proposed by a Muslim politician from an opposing alliance. Such sentiment is likely widespread among the greater part of Lebanese Christians.
Shortly after S. Franjieh's "appointment", on November 27, 2015, he was visited in his North-Lebanese Bneshai residence by the United States Ambassador to Lebanon Richard Jones. In the opinion of some observers, this visit gave substance to rumors that the candidate received backing from the USA, Saudi Arabia and France. Meanwhile, the U.S. diplomat paid a number of visits to other Lebanese politicians, including, on November 30, 2015, the young leader of Kataeb Samy Gemayel in his Bikfaya residence (apparently, in order to enlist his support of the proposed candidacy), and, 10 days later, with his father, the former President Amin Gemayel. Saudi Ambassador Ali Awad al-Asiri was among the first to openly support Franjieh as the best possible candidate, saying that he saw no practical possibility of Dzhaadzhi or Gemayel becoming president, while Aoun's candidacy was unacceptable to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. However, soon such activity on the part of foreign representatives aroused indignation, for example, from the leadership of the Lebanese Forces. Thus, the deputy head party head Georges Adwan said on television that "any advice that comes from foreign ambassadors, means nothing for the party ... does not affect us, because we know better what we need, and we saw how their advice led to the collapse of big states."
The key event in the process of finding the middle ground on the candidacy of the future president was a productive dialogue between the main opposing Lebanese alliances, "March 14" and "March 8". It's important to note that this dialogue included two tracks: Muslim – between "Mustaqbal" (Hariri) and "Hezbollah" (Hassan Nasrallah), and Christian – between the SPD (Michel Aoun) and the Lebanese Forces (Samir Dzhaadzha). Both tracks were launched in December 2014, and negotiations continued – with varying degrees of success – throughout 2015.
In addition, a direct dialogue was established between the Hezbollah and Kataeb parties, ideologically two polar opposites . Over the past two years several such meetings were held to discuss the electoral law reform and the presidential candidacy. Apart from setting the stage for future contacts, these meetings, apparently, can not be described as successful. Thus, new Phalangist leader Samy Gemayel, who was elected in the summer of 2015, does not consider Hezzbollah's assistance to Lebanese army to be legitimate or useful, and believes that Hezzbollah "continues to endanger the lives of the Lebanese and their livelihoods." Hezzbollah also fights on the side of the Syrian regime.
Taking into account the clearly organized process of negotiating positions of the main contenders in the Lebanese political arena, as well as a unique method for identifying a consensus figure for the presidency demonstrated by the leader of the Lebanese Sunni community, we can, perhaps, make a conclusion as to the increased influence of Saudi Arabia on the processes in the country. It would also be wrong to say that this influence conflicts with the interests of another major regional player – Iran, which is considered the inderect patron of the "March 8" alliance. On the contrary, there is clear evidence of a constructive dialogue aimed at finding a new formula for political balance in Lebanon, that would be impossible without the agreement of the two regional powers.
"Shuffling the Deck" of the Political Elite
With regard to the Lebanese Christian political elite, these processes can lead to serious "shuffling the deck", or the regrouping of forces in the domestic political field. All this apart from the fact that the fierce struggle for the presidency between Maronite candidates has deepened the fragmentation of the Christian camp.
Various political preferences and foreign policy orientation of key Lebanese Christian politicians, coupled with clan ambitions, result in a severe picture of fragmentation of the Christian community in Lebanon, where deep faultlines has long ran not only on the boundaries of religious communities, but also within them. In this regard, it's even hardly worth talking about the weakening positions of Christians in Lebanon: for many years they did not show tendencies to unite on the basis of religion. Even such politicaly active figures like the former and the current patriarchs of the Maronite Church have failed to play an essential unifying role. It is most likely that the restructuring of the Lebanese political arena would see the final departure from the Syrian factor as a cornerstone in the demarcation of the elite into two major alliance.
The attitude towards the former Syrian dominance in Lebanon's domestic politics is no longer a primary issue for political platforms, nor does it determine a direct correlation of belonging to a particular political camp. Current trends may continue to push the issue to the outskirts of the ideological field. But what will emerge to the center stage to determine the possibility for alliances despite religious differences? What do the new leaders of the "good old" political parties, all these numerous scions of the glorious Lebanese clans bring with them?
What is evident so far, is the increasing reliance on foreign forces that makes any centralizing efforts futile; for example, the National Dialogue framework – whether under the auspices of Sleiman, Al-Rahi, or Berri. That is, instead of consolidation of political forces, the centralization of power and strengthening the role of the army and intelligence agencies in confronting regional threats, instead of fixing the economy in a political crisis, there is a centrifugal process of appeal to regional leaders where even the factor of religious denominations becomes secondary to the dominance of clan interests.
What will happen?
It is likely that Lebanon will survive this difficult period of political instability with the backdrop of a whole set of problems of a different nature (popular protests, rising unemployment, the threat of Islamic invasion, terrorist attacks, difficulties in the economy, the problem of refugees) . This confidence exists because of the presence of an established system of internal balances, that cause great interest among researchers democratic models. The Lebanese system has recently been referred to as "consociational democracy", which involves, in particular, proportional representation of religious communities in government, broad coalitions of religious elites, community empowerment in the matters of internal regulation and the mutual right of veto among community leaders . Surprisingly, this model has allowed to survive through peaks of the "turbulence wave" in the Arab world. Regulatory mechanisms inherent to this society lead Lebanon to the socio-political equilibrium, which can only be characterized as dynamic.
However, there still remain unsolved some serious issues that only at a superficial glance may seem like formal procedures: negotiation and adoption of a new electoral law, the repeatedly postponed elections in the Council of Deputies (parliament), the approval of candidates for the senior command positions in the army and security services, and others. The debate among Lebanese parliamentarians on these issues have been going on for many months or even years (a new electoral law was to be adopted before June 2013, parliamentary elections were postponed twice for one and a half years each tme, while the powers of heads of law enforcement agencies were extended for a year and then for another six months). Issues come to a standstill again and again due to the key politicians' desire to see see as many their supporters in office as possible. The establishment of a dynamic equilibrium is obviously been long in the waiting.
And finally, one more important point. Obviously undervalued by the political beau monde is the still high potential for protest on the part of the new generation of Lebanese who find the system of denominational representation increasingly flawed, if familiar. Non-systemic protests that took place in the midst of "garbage crisis" in August–September 2015 were a new phenomenon for the country that none of the political forces in Lebanon were able to take charge of.
Without a doubt, this is a stern warning to those who, being in positions of authority, unduly rely on foreign factor or the financial power of their clan groups, leaving the Lebanese internal policies without attention. In the event of mass street protests, the Christians of Lebanon may turn away from their 'traditional' representatives in the government, and not just leave them without support, but, quite likely, offer a new – reformatted – model of the political elite, free of the now obscure clan ambitions rooted in the distant feudal past.
It is quite telling, that Nabih Berri, a man who is struggling to reconcile his fellow lawmakers and lead the country out of the executive and legislative crisis, while speaking to students of the elite American, Lebanese American and St. Joseph Universities said: "It is you who will be working in politics, but instead of inherriting old policies, tackle the ones where you see your country’s future."
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